I’m currently on a flight to Washington, D.C. My carry on is tucked away overhead and my computer bag rests at my feet. As I boarded the plane and stowed my suitcase, it occurred to me that it weighed hardly anything. The ease with which I hoisted it above my seat made me realize that in the past I would have either struggled to get it up there or I would have checked a larger bag.
Because it would have been stuffed with workout clothing and running shoes.
Exercise Dependence is Real
I had a disordered relationship with exercise for a long time. However, because our wellness-obsessed culture applauds those with the dedication to exercise routinely and excessively, it wasn’t recognized as such.
But the level of anxiety I felt when I couldn’t exercise was indicative of just how much I depended on it to feel OK. It was a non-negotiable in my schedule. God forbid I get invited to something in the evening if I planned to hit the gym. Last minute change of plans? That would just about send me into a tailspin of self-loathing thoughts. And I couldn’t fathom the thought of not packing multiple outfits when I travel so I could go for a run or use the hotel gym.
Exercise can relieve stress but it can also induce it. While many will tout the benefits of the “endorphin high” there’s something to be said for recognizing when and where it’s appropriate and realistic to make movement a priority.
It’s OK to Rest When You’re Busy
Travel is exciting; most people genuinely like to explore new places, eat new foods, experience new things. A quick scan through dating apps (if you haven’t been on there lately) is chock full of profiles showcasing well-traveled people who pride themselves on their wanderlust. Travel stories are woven into our fondest memories and we seize any opportunity to share about where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
But travel is also stressful AF. We tend to glamorize the enjoyable aspects while forgetting that cancellations, delays, and other mishaps often throw a kink in your plans. On my last trip, runway closures and weather delays postponed my arrival until nearly 3 a.m. local time. I managed to squeeze in about four hours of sleep but was basically a glazed-over zombie the entire day. In the past I would have rushed to change clothes and sneak off to the hotel gym during our short break to avoid a skipped workout. But this time I took a nap and let me tell you. I felt so much better.
Our culture doesn’t like to rest. Maybe it’s the internalized capitalism, maybe it’s the pride we take in being dedicated to health. Maybe it’s our fear of being perceived as lazy.
But burning a candle at both ends isn’t sustainable, nor is it necessary.
Ask Yourself Why You’re Exercising In the First Place
As a dietitian, I know the ins and outs of energy balance better than most. I’m fully aware of the beneficial aspects of exercise. But I also know a short stint that deviates from your normal routine is not going to make or break your overall health. For most of us, a few days of being less active than usual does little to impact fitness levels or body composition.
If you’re a professional athlete or otherwise get paid to perform, sure. Go ahead and make it a priority. However, that’s a very different motivating factor. If you’re relying on exercise to maintain a smaller or thinner body or exercise out of fear of weight gain, there’s a possibility you might be abusing exercise as I once did.
Compensatory behaviors (including exercise) land on the disordered eating-eating disorder spectrum. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I need to exercise to burn off this meal” or “I can’t have that extra serving because I didn’t workout today”, that’s your sign.
There is a difference between disordered eating behaviors and a full blown eating disorder. For some people, these thoughts and behaviors escalate to a level that needs intervention. It consumes their daily life in a debilitating and damaging way. For others, it’s less problematic but still harms their relationship with food and exercise in less profound ways.
Find Joy in Movement and Practice Self Care
The concept of joyful movement might sound a little woo-woo to some. But I challenge you to think back to when you were a young child. What types of activities did you love the most? Was there a part of your day you looked forward to because you could run and play and jump and explore? When did movement turn from something playful to something burdensome?
I now challenge you to ask why you can’t find that same enjoyment as an adult. We think exercise only “counts” if you push yourself to your limit and end up as a gasping, overheated puddle of sweat at the end of a workout. Cardio machines and personal trainers and bootcamp classes and a “feel the burn” mentality are options but if you don’t find joy in that, is it really serving your health and wellbeing?
Viewing exercise as an act of self care means that you’re truly caring for your body. You can recognize and respond to what it needs and know that it will vary from day to day.
- Feeling anxious and need an outlet? A high intensity bootcamp class that spikes your heart rate might exacerbate that so you might choose to go for a walk outdoors and listen to music or a podcast.
- Feeling antsy because you’ve been sitting all day? Maybe your slow-flow yoga class isn’t what you’re craving so you crank up the music and dance it out or go for a run.
- Visiting a new city and feeling curious? Throw on some comfy shoes and explore on foot or rent a bike or scooter, no need to stay within the confines of a hotel gym or studio class.
- On the verge of burnout or sleep deprived? Rest. That’s it. Just rest.
These are just a few examples of how you can blend your desire to be active with a flexible approach to exercise and movement.
This mindset shift doesn’t happen overnight. It’s tough, especially if being active and fit is intertwined with your identity. But I can tell you that I no longer experience those anxious thoughts when my schedule changes and I don’t exercise as planned. I’m more free to enjoy my travels and be present in the moment. And to be honest, none of my favorite memories from past vacations have started with a story about hitting the gym.
While my luggage might have felt lighter due to the efforts I put in at the gym, it’s also lighter because I don’t pack what I don’t need.